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Remembering 9/11

James Halpern's Remarks

James Halpern's Remarks

As we approach the 10 year anniversary of the attacks on September 11, I would like us to commemorate not only the three thousand lives lost but also remember those who are still suffering - as well as the children whose lives were shaped by those events. I will also discuss the healing process that is ongoing.

There were many more victims than those who died on that day. In every disaster there are “primary” victims and “secondary or indirect” victims—those with close ties to the primary ones. Let’s remember the family, friends and neighbors of those killed or injured who were all deeply impacted and are still suffering. The ripple effect from 9/11 was so great that there is a danger that someone who needed and may still need care could be overlooked. Tens of thousands of men and women worked through the recovery efforts at Ground Zero, recovering more than 30,000 body parts, at extraordinary personal costs. Rescue and recovery workers suffered serious health consequences – and all of these workers had family and friends who were also affected. It may take decades before we know the full extent of the physical and emotional trauma to the workers, their families, residents, and others who were exposed. We honor their sacrifices today.

We have been at war ever since the attacks on 9/11. Let’s honor the thousands of U.S. military service men and women who sacrificed their lives as well as those both physically and psychologically wounded. Some estimates suggest that 30% of returning active duty troops are diagnosed with PTSD, with higher percentages for National Guard and Reservists. Let’s also remember the hundreds of thousands of citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan who have been killed.

Terrorism is psychological warfare. It is a style of political violence that strategically uses attacks on a limited number to influence a wider audience. It is intended to assault our sense of safety, security and cohesion. 9/11 shattered our assumptions about the world and ourselves, producing cognitive, emotional, physical and spiritual impairment. But, it can be especially hard on children and adolescents who are in the process of development.

A great many of you here today were children in 2001. To understand how the attacks affected you, my colleagues Drs. Karla Vermeulen, Phyllis Freeman and Jan Schmidt created a website where students and other ordinary people could post their memories of that day. The following are excerpts from current New Paltz students who were in grade school and they demonstrate how 9/11 shaped this generation.

  • From a seventh grader - I was sitting in my... English class when an administrator voiced on the loud speaker that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center buildings. She advised students who were concerned to call their parents if need be. …I had no idea what this meant. My friend Dan was taken out of school that day; his father worked in the World Trade Center and had not called. In the following days Dan and our friends kept ourselves “busy.” We went to the movies, ate at McDonald’s, played outside; Dan vomited the entire time. His father was one of six hundred and fifty-eight Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died on September 11th. He never called.

  • From a 6th Grader - I was in the cafeteria at lunch with my friends and suddenly a voice came on the loudspeaker that “We were attacked.” Everyone got really scared and nervous and thought there was WWIII. We were young and scared. As I walked through the halls, a sense of fear came over me. I saw people crying and I didn’t even really know what was going on. I went to my social studies class and my teacher tried to explain it to us, but it wasn’t until I got home… and watched the news that I really got it. It was playing over + over + over – the plane hitting the towers, people running, jumping out of windows to their death. It was so close and so scary. I’ll never forget that day. And finally -

  • It took years for me to understand the devastation. My coping method at 11 was to avoid thinking about it. But that became harder and harder to do. Regardless of time I was constantly reminded of it. I am a Muslim American and at the age of 13 (in 2002) I decided to wear the hijab (headscarf), a personal choice. Even in middle school the hate/bias, and anger was present. I felt it on the train on the way to school, in the remarks people made, and even the way many people avoided standing next to me in public, a little 13 year old that looked younger than her age wearing a headscarf. It’s not like my nation wasn’t attacked on September 11th, it was. It was attacked by people who called themselves members of my faith. The worst part wasn’t the name calling or uncomfortableness, it was the fact that people who called themselves from my faith attacked my home (in NYC and in the USA). …

We have learned a great deal since 9/11 regarding how to provide the best help for those traumatized by catastrophic events.  There are five key principles that should underlie an effective helping response: Promoting Safety, Calming, Self- and collective efficacy, Hope and Connectedness.

• We need to do all we can to promote safety, to remove the actual or perceived threats and reduce the physiological responses to fear and anxiety. Accurate information can increase the sense of safety by helping people to understand bad news and dispelling rumors. All of us should be on the alert to confront community leaders or media figures who exploit disasters and tragedies for political gain or sensationalism.

•We need to promote calm as heightened anxiety or arousal can become dysfunctional. We have to remind ourselves and others that we are no longer in danger and encourage relaxation.  

• We can help to promote self-efficacy by helping others to regulate their negative emotions and to solve practical problems. We can help with community activities like mourning rituals or getting children back in school. 

• Whatever we can do to promote hope, helps in the healing process. For some, hope is a belief that our actions will help bring about a better future. For others, hope arises through belief in God.

• And finally - there is nothing more healing than promoting positive and supportive connections: Connecting children with parents and neighbors with neighbors provides social support and increases the chances for long-term recovery.

In difficult times we need to help each other to find calm, safety and hope. As one New Paltz student wrote:

I was in fourth grade when the Twin Towers were struck. I can’t recall much of anything about that day. But I remember two days later, as my mom drove me to a piano lesson, she told me how lucky we were. And I knew what she was talking about. She kept her hand on mine the whole way there.